A friend and I were recently talking about cell phones and I said something to the effect of “We’re a long way from the days of dialing”—and then, I stuck out my finger and rotated an imaginary dial. As if she didn’t know what “dialing a phone” meant.
Within the same week, I was talking to another friend who could not come up with the word, bellows. I realized the word that she wanted and pumped my hands together. The problem was, this conversation took place on the phone so I’m pretty sure that my visual aid did her no good.
It occurred to me that there must be some instinct toward gesticulation because we seem to do it even when it is totally unnecessary or even totally useless. (Gesticulation is one of my favorite words because it has a nice rhythm and sounds both sophisticated and dirty at the same time, so it could be that this post is really an excuse to type gesticulation three times. Which I just did.)
If you ask an Internet search engine, “Why do we talk with our hands?” you will get a fascinating number of articles explaining the phenomenon, which apparently takes place for myriad reasons. According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of Brilliant, there is growing recognition that our gestures “constitute a kind of back-channel way of expressing and even working out our thoughts.” There is also increasing recognition that our thoughts are not generated nor expressed in isolation up in the brain; rather thinking is a full-body process and our gestures are a by-product of that. In fact, psychologist Art Markman states in a Psychology Today article that while some gestures such as pointing, are clearly designed to communicate, others seem to benefit only the speaker. Hence, it isn’t crazy to imitate pumping a bellows while on the telephone. In other words our gestures are part of our thought formation.
Markman cites a 1996 study in which two groups of participants watched a Road Runner cartoon. Both groups were then asked to describe the action, but one group had their arms strapped to a chair. The group that was unable to gesture had a more difficult time verbally describing the action they had seen. The main point here is that I want to be paid to be in a study in which I’m shown Road Runner cartoons, but I digress . . .
Paul cites a study indicating that third-graders who were asked to gesture while studying math were three times as likely to solve a problem correctly as those who didn’t, indicating that indeed, movement is important to thought-formation. Perhaps this also explains the link between ballroom dancing and the prevention of dementia.
It is amazing how many gestures all of us make. Gestures are so pervasive that the description of certain gestures has even permeated our language. I hope you give a thumbs up to what I’ve pointed out about gestures, and don’t just wave it off. (See what I did there?)